Sunday, January 24, 2010

Why didn't my university teach languages like Drake University does?

We in the language-learning blogosphere are generally not impressed by university-level language programs. Some of us have even gone so far as to envision a brave new world of institutional language learning where entire language departments get the boot and students take advantage of native speakers, study abroad, and the multitude of resources available to them to learn their language of choice.

Well, I hate to spoil our "We know so much better than crusty, old schools" party, but Drake University, "a private, fully accredited, coeducational university on a 120-acre campus in Des Moines, Iowa", seems to be way ahead of the curve on this one. They implemented just such a system. And they did it in 2001. To those of you with short memories, they launched this way back when you couldn't watch foreign-language videos on YouTube or listen to language-learning podcasts on your iPod because, well, when it launched, YouTube, podcasts, and even the iPod didn't exist.

So what exactly has Drake been doing since they jettisoned their language faculty?

Here are the outlines of their approach.
  • At the beginning of their language studies at Drake, students take a course on language-learning strategies in English that is not aimed at any particular language (sounds like the book we're working on).

  • Students meet three times per week in groups of no more than four with a native speaker of their target language and speak nothing but the target language during that time (sounds like LingQ's group sessions). Some classes are now completely virtual, via Adobe Acrobat Connect and Skype, making it seem even more like LingQ.

  • Outside of these meeting times, students "practice using the language, make audio recordings of themselves speaking, and complete a variety of other assignments as part of the required electronic portfolio", which includes a journal in the target language (like Lang-8), the aforementioned recordings (as can be done on Lang-8 or Livemocha), writing samples (as can be done on a bunch of language-learning websites), and other things.

  • Over the semester, students meet with a Ph.d.-holding linguist to cover grammar questions in English, go over how they're doing, etc. The linguist's main role seems to be a coordinating one.
Drake's method seems to be spreading slowly, with some schools adding additional advancements. Inside Higher Ed describes the case of Abilene Christian University:
Abilene Christian piloted Mandarin during the 2008-9 academic year using the Drake model of a supervising professor and a native speaker conversation partner. The professor … was in Beijing, and on-campus graduate students fluent in Mandarin led discussions. Arabic is taught by a professor in Tunisia.
Now that technologies like Skype are so commonplace, native-speaker teachers who live in their native countries seems like such a no-brainer to me.

And, most importantly, the model seems to be working. According to Inside Higher Ed:
There has been no comprehensive study of how Drake’s students compare to students who learn languages in a more traditional way. But the anecdotal evidence is there, many times over, said Jan Marston, director of [Drake's program] from its founding until last year.

When students trained at the Des Moines, Iowa, university study abroad, she said, “they’re placed in classes way above where the seat time would indicate they should be.” Students report back that while other students in their programs abroad speak English to each other, “Drake students are speaking Russian to the Russians.”

Marc Cadd, who directs Drake’s [program currently] said students are generally placed two semesters ahead of where they would be at Drake when they study elsewhere. For instance, students who had finished Drake’s Spanish 101 and 102 classes would likely be placed into a third-year language class when studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country “primarily on the strength of their speaking skills."
I can't say I'm surprised. The approach they're taking jives much more with what I've found in my own experience than any more traditional approach.

So, Drake University, my hat's off to you. Your program is by far closer to how I would have liked to have learned languages in college, and your results certainly do seem to show it. (And someone might want to tell Steve Kaufmann to give these guys a call, given just how similar their system is to LingQ's.)

Links:
Outsourcing Language Learning [Inside Higher Ed]
Languages without Language Faculty [Inside Higher Ed]
World Languages and Cultures [Drake University]

10 comments:

  1. That's really awesome that someone in Education actually got it enough to convince a college to do things that much differently, and they appear to have gotten it right!

    I've been slow to jump on the 'online tutoring' for languages, but now I'm starting to seriously consider it. I had planned to self-teach at my pace until I was ready to try conversation, then go for text first and speaking last... But I'm rethinking it all now.

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  2. I'm still flabbergasted that they did all of this back in 2001!

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  3. This is great! I'm sure we're going to see a lot more of this kind of change in the future. I'm pretty excited to see what language classes will be like in 10 years!

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  4. This is the way to go. Schools and universities can coordinate the learning of languages by many, rather than trying to make it happen in class, where it is much less efficient. Thanks for the mention of LingQ. There are more and more resources on the web which can make this kind of language learning more effective than the traditional approach.

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  5. *cough*, *cough*

    I will assert that not only did podcasts exist before 2001, but they existed in languages other than English. I will concede that they were not called podcasts until after the advent of the iPod. I cite one of the earliest ones, which is happily still running, as an example:

    http://radioverda.com/

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  6. @ Steve: I'm not sure how I could have done this post without mentioning LingQ, given how strikingly similar their system is with LingQ's. I hope you can find some way to work with them!

    @ Dale: I think you might have me, although for me podcasting has to include being able to easily obtain the content. Manually downloading periodic audio or video content from a website doesn't seem like podcasting to me because it'd be such a pain. Wikipedia appears to disagree with me, but that would make anyone posting regular videos to YouTube a podcaster, and that doesn't seem to jive.

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  7. @ Vincent: Thank you for taking the trouble to look a little further into what we are doing with language studies at Drake.

    Drake's Language Acquisition Program actually began in fall 2002. I was able to re-think what a language program might look like if the objectives were to frame an experience for students that resulted in their actually learning to communicate in another language, with some appreciation of the fact that language can't be separated from its cultural context.

    Since the beginning, Drake's program has been learner-centered, and second language acquisition specialists have mentored students and provided oversight and training for native speaker/facilitators. A small-group approach with a focus on language production has been a consistent element.

    Virtual Language Studies, my current project, is all online and interactive. Students from five institutions participate. The approach is metacognitive and holistic. Two less-commonly-taught languages are offered: Russian and Chinese. Asessment is portfolio-based, and includes some outside examiner for oral interviews.

    If you'd like to get more details about VLS, you can look at my course blog, Learning Virtually, at http://dulap.drake.edu/wordpress/learningvirtually/

    Comments are welcome.

    Jan Marston, Ph.D.
    Director, Drake Virtual Language Studies

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  8. I'm a sceptic. There seems to be an awful lot of effort directed at speaking which is a distraction from learning the language well, at least to begin with. There also seems to be a whole lot of meta learning and writing going on which is probably a waste of time, time far better spent by the student observing how native speakers use the language.

    And yes, I agree language students should be independent learners. In which case, why bother with universities at all?

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  9. Whether or not one thinks that Drake is ahead of the curve on language learning, the fact remains that there is no need to pay for this kind of service. It's available free (or $6 a month) on mylanguageexchange.com. (The site connects learners to native speakers in foreign countries, uses Skype, allows for small groups, etc.) As it is set up now, this is purely a credentialing service.

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  10. That site does look pretty interesting. I'll have to give it a swing sometime.

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